May Your Home Be Open Wide
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we are introduced to the personality and life philosophy of our patriarch, Avraham Avinu. Although Avraham was a great teacher and had many followers of his new way of life, he is not known as “Avraham our teacher.” Instead, he is known to us as the model of true חסד, acts of loving kindness. The knowledge of God attained in his quest for truth changed the internal direction of his soul.
In Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” we come across the statement of Yose ben Yochanan, man of Jerusalem. (Ethics 1:5) There he states, “May your home be open wide.” Rashi comments, “Open on four sides for travelers to enter.” Quoting the Talmud Rashi continues, “And he, Yoav, captain of King David’s army, established his house in the desert. But was his house truly in the desert?” asks the Talmud. Yoav was not poor that he should live this way. The Talmud clarifies, “His house was like a desert, open on all sides just like Avraham’s house which was open on all four sides.”
Avraham Avinu was the individual who made the most significant breakthrough into reality. Growing up in a society steeped in idolatry and false notions about the workings of nature and without a teacher, he discovered the reality of God, Creator of the Universe. He was the world’s first scientist discovering that the physical world is not haphazard. Rather it works according to universal laws of nature put in place by the Creator.
After making these breakthroughs, he was not content with the fact that he had knowledge of the Creator. Rather, he set out on his life’s mission to bring this knowledge to the rest of humanity. Afraid of his ideas, King Nimrod sentenced Avraham to prison where he spent the next 10 years of his life. Undaunted by this setback, he and his wife Sarah had many followers as the Torah tells us when he set forth for Canaan, “…and he took with him the souls that they made in Haran.”
Aside from the sheer genius of his intellect and communication skills, Avraham’s insights changed his whole personality. In fact, to make certain breakthroughs, Avraham had to first perfect his own personality. The Talmud tells us, “Avraham wrote 70 tractates on idol worship.” What does the Talmud mean to tell us? In all the 64 volumes of Talmud, there is only one tractate on idol worship. The Talmud is telling us that Avraham analyzed every emotion and every aspect of human personality. They are the cause for people inventing their own systems to cope with their fears and insecurities. They are the internal obstacles that prevent a person from seeing the truth, from internalizing new ideas, and from changing behavior to align with the newly discovered reality.
Our senses and emotions have a head start in their involvement with the physical world. They begin at birth. Our rational mind, our intellect doesn’t really start to take hold until around Bar or Bat Mitzvah age. As all educators know, this is the great challenge of teaching middle school age students. They are in the transition phase from the emotional components leading the way to the rational mind. In many philosophic areas we never make a complete transition. We don’t want to give up what feels good and pleasurable for some abstract idea that will eventually bring greater enjoyment, albeit in a different realm.
Avraham was able to reach many people. His חסד, acts of loving kindness, was genuine, stemming from his love of God. How so? Doors are barriers to safeguard entry. While they are necessary for our security they also serve another function. The typical one-door entry to a home forces the entrant to confront the owner. This act, however slightly, promotes the ego of the owner and diminishes that of the entrant. One grants the permission to enter boosting his ego while the other’s is diminished having to first seek permission to come in.
Avraham is the paragon of true חסד. When operating on the highest level, the owner or donor is completely removed. A person gives or assists without seeking any appreciation from the recipient. He or she gives in such a way as to forgo any ego satisfaction while at the same time preserving the dignity of the recipient. Giving assistance is offered because not to do so is intolerable to the benefactor. A human being in need is the only motivating factor.
We are to emulate God’s ways. In the Ashrei, Psalm 145, we say, “He opens His hands and satisfies every living thing with what it needs.” Just as God gives freely to all and receives no benefit or satisfaction from bestowing His kindness on humanity, so should we. We bestow חסד to remove an intolerable human situation that another human being is in need.
However, removing the self from the action is easier said than done. The slightest feeling of self-worth and importance or tinge of personal satisfaction in the giving or assistance, reduces the act from one of “true chesed.” Any time the donor enjoys feelings of benevolence or the recipient is humbled, diminishes ever so slightly the act of chesed. True chesed is a state of being not easily attained.
The paradigm for this state of being is the “tent open on all four sides.” Whether literally as in Avraham’s case or as in the case of Yoav mentioned above, when open on all sides, the owner receives no ego satisfaction. He is not in control of who enters and who does not, and the recipient is spared any shame or humiliation since he will not have to confront the homeowner. The recipient’s dignity is maintained at a higher level. Both Avraham and Yoav were wealthy but they set up their homes, and related to all of their possessions, in such a way that anyone could walk in freely without confrontation.
Maimonides writes in his major philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed, that man reaches his highest level when he performs acts of loving-kindness, chesed. A person’s identification with other human beings generates this love. Once man conquers his ego and materialism, he can experience this state of being. Reaching this level of human interaction stems first from having insights into God and the nature of His actions. These concepts lead to having intellectual insight about the value and purpose of the physical world. Internalizing these ideas into one’s personality changes and transforms, in a fundamental way, all of our human interactions.
Avraham was famous for his kindness to others. People correctly sensed in Avraham his genuine concern for them, for both their physical and spiritual wellbeing. His greatness as a teacher as well stemmed from his genuine concern for all humanity. My mentor and teacher Rabbi Israel Chait said many times that hate only exists because of the ego. If man conquers his ego, he will naturally be kind to others because he identifies with them. Let us aspire, through the study of the life of Avraham, to acts of loving kindness.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan